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Sean Canning and Red Redmond

eight-freestyle and Contact Young Company

Contact, Manchester

December 9-31, 2023; 2hrs 15min inc 20min interval

Red Redmond and Steven Jackson in Cinderella at Contact Theatre. All pics: Shay Rowan
Red Redmond and Steven Jackson in Cinderella at Contact Theatre. All pics: Shay Rowan

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Long gone, thankfully, are the days when the only pantomimes on offer appeared to be star vehicles for questionable celebrities, circling the country year after year featuring the same cookie-cutter scripts.

From rock and roll pantos to modern takes on classic tales, there are many brilliant alternatives to the mainstream to delight both young and old.

Contact’s Cinderella is a fine example, even if the creative team has tried to do a little too much and doesn’t appear entirely sure of the show’s target audience.

It starts with a stunning animation, skydiving mice a particular highlight. C W Lea and SteTV are behind the graphics and video.

Sadly, the opening makes way for a fairly lacklustre first scene and a pretty basic set, neither of which match the ambition of the beginning.

This is a co-production between theatre producer eight-freesyle and the venue’s own youth wing, and when the Contact Young Company makes its entrance the energy measurably picks up again. The child dancers are adorable and extraordinarily talented in equal measure.

If there is anyone still unfamiliar with the story, young Cinderella (Rebecca Crookson) is living a life of near-slavery with horrid stepsisters Verucca (Lady Bushra) and Herniyah (Misty Chance). That is until Fairy Flo (Kate Mitchell) arrives on the scene, keen to make Cinders' dream come true.

This is where things get a little complicated because in this version Ella is not just seeking a throne or love and marriage but an ability to pursue dancing ambitions. Similarly, Prince Charming (Ryan Hall) desires freedom from royal protocol over anything else. The Prince Harry vibes are not hidden.

That aside, the story follows a fairly conventional path. There are invites, balls, pumpkins, a midnight curfew and the inevitable hunt for a foot to fit a lost slipper.

Two debt collectors, Elon (Jordan Skelly) and Musk (played by members of the Contact Young Company), don’t add much and are one example of a few unnecessary tangents. Some younger children may well struggle with the fairly lengthy running time.

The overall feel is very family-focused, but the script doesn’t seem as sure. Kids will fall in love with Red Redmond’s Buttons but they are going to be fairly blank-faced at the references to Gaviscon and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The song list is the same. One of Cinderella’s second act numbers is the Eurovision winner Rise Like a Phoenix. A classic it may be but it is getting on after being released nearly a decade ago now.

A combination of material aimed at both older and younger generations is a mainstay of pantoland of course, but the balance here feels a bit off and certainly doesn’t match the tone of the show itself.

That being said, there are some laugh-out-loud lines in Sean Canning and Red Redmond’s script. One line on leg-waxing was deliciously close to the edge. The slices of topicality, with digs at fast fashion and the patriarchy, are all spot on.

Crucial to any panto are the villains; Cinderella is blessed with Manchester drag royalty in the form of Lady Bushra and Misty Chance, a fabulous double act.

In the title role, Rebecca Crookson has a lot of work to do and is likeable and talented, especially in song. As Prince Charming, Ryan Hall is sweet and never falls into smarmy.

Ella-Maria Danson is a bit of a stand-out as Dandini. They are alive in every moment and can really sing.

One feels with more performances under their belts the entire cast will loosen up into the production and ramp up the ad-libs and chaos.

Choreographer Michella Louise has put together some brilliant numbers, not least in the second act ball, with multiple dance styles on show. The movement is all sublime. This is both dancing and gymnastics and it really brings the production to life.

Overall, this is a really good effort but the balance feels a little off, possibly because director Sean Canning is trying to do too much. There are too many tangents or characters or plot lines that don't advance the story.

But the heart is there, and this show will improve with more performances. It is also a very welcome diversion from the panto programming norm - which is to be commended.

More info and tickets here.


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